Never Alone lacks the confidence to tell its story in the language of the game.
The strongest moment in Never Alone doesn't occur while playing. Instead it comes during one of the puzzle-platformer’s numerous documentary shorts, which are called "Cultural Insights." In it, members of the Iñupiat Alaskan indigenous tribe describe the act of storytelling. Like many oral traditions from around the world, their stories impart unique cultural wisdom. They speak to the context of their lives, of their history, and of their future. “We all live in stories,” one interview describes, “And they need to be told. They need to be heard.”
There is a sort of melancholy plea in the speaker's voice as he says this last line, and as these vignettes of Cultural Insight continue, peppered throughout the game, the weight of desire becomes evident. Look around games, books, films, whatever. The stories of marginalized communities are told too rarely. They are stories meant to be shared, but in many real ways, they are dying. I want to make very clear the respect Upper One Games deserves for making a game with an all too rare perspective before I say this, but Never Alone is a failure in storytelling.
The game itself, mechanically, is a familiar puzzle-platformer with serviceable level design. Nuna, a young girl, journeys to discover the source of an endless blizzard accompanied by a fox companion. Both characters are playable and are required to overcome the natural and mystical obstacles in their way. Never Alone includes some clever moments (using wind to your advantage is fun), but for the most part, it remains a simple, albeit middling, experience.
Alright, with that out of the way, what really matters here is the cultural significance of the world of Never Alone. As you play, a narrator describes the story in his native tongue. At times, the game stirs the player, making you feel like you might feel seated around a campfire telling stories. However, oral narratives like this are of and for a particular context, and Never Alone seems aware of how cultural norms can color a storytelling experience.
The documentary-like Cultural Insights provide much needed substance to the world of the game. During one of these shorts, the interviewees describe the concept of Sila, the atmosphere, the wind, and the spirit of nature. They speak of this form of spirituality with a reverence that is carried into the environment of Never Alone. The spirits of the game that aid Nuna and the fox during their trials have meaning to us because -- as we see in these shorts -- they mean something deep and profound to those whose beliefs encompass Sila.
However, we lose the significance of these perspectives during actual gameplay. Important elements of the game don’t hold much meaning until you view the shorts, but then the shorts pull you out of the gameplay. The result feels more like a guided tour through a museum than an interactive form of oral tradition. Never Alone lacks the confidence to tell its story in the language of the game, and instead supplements play with disruptive (albeit compelling) interviews. It is distracting and disjointed experience.
The practice of documentary storytelling has been on my mind lately. I recently watched All of Me, a documentary about a group of women in Mexico who selflessly prepare, bag, and hand out food to South American immigrants stowing away on a train headed towards the US border. Growing up in a migrant family, I heard about journeys like this, the dangers and risks of crossing the border and everything that could go wrong. I went into this documentary thinking I knew what to expect.
Then, after spending some time with these women, getting to know who they are on a small scale, the filmmaker shows the actual distribution of food. A whistle blows in the distance and the volunteers hurriedly stuff bags and run to the tracks. They hastily spread themselves out, grab several bags, and look about nervously. Suddenly the train hurtles down the tracks with a monstrous roar. The thunderous train, appropriately called The Beast, storms by as the women frantically hand out bags to migrants reaching out between the cars with their hands outstretched. Meanwhile, they cry out “Tengo hambre! Tengo hambre!” almost inaudibly, “I’m hungry. I’m hungry.”
In this moment, systems of migration, the complex intermingling of labor, race, and politics, manifest themselves in the language of film. Without ever describing in detail the forces at work, we feel their raw destructive power and are awed at the lives offered up in selfless sacrifice to the maw of the global economic order. Then the train passes, and once again we are back on the ground with these surrogate mothers of migrants.
I do not know what indigenous stories look like in the “language of games,” though I have some ideas that I would love to see explored. Upper One Games is right to be cautious in its incorporation of stories into Never Alone when they enter an industry traditionally inhospitable to the stories of marginalized cultural communities. Even so, if their goal is, as they say, to make games that “share, celebrate and extend culture,” then play should feel less like a tour and more like a living experience.